Phil Robertson is like a Jihadist: He Knows His Scriptures

It should go without saying that Phil Robertson is a public embarrassment, but it’s also important to keep our facts straight. As Jason Staples does in his recent blogpost, which is worth citing at length:

“The quote on the left [see image to the right] is not Robertson’s at all. It is a quotation of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. Remarkably, two of the three quotes attributed to Robertson… are not Robertson’s words at all but rather direct quotes from the New Testament (the other coming from Rom 1:24–32).

“It’s also worth noting that Pope Francis presumably agrees with these quotes from the apostle Paul, which have long guided Catholic tradition in this area; he has simply changed the rhetoric surrounding the issue to emphasize that the Church does not and (at least in terms of doctrine) has never reduced people to behavior or desires, emphasizing that a person is more than his/her sexual preferences or choices. Robertson, of course, said much the same thing, though far less eloquently than the philosophically-trained Pope, in his GQ interview.

“How exactly the Pope interprets these passages [emphasis mine] is unclear, and that’s the discussion that would be more valuable here. Instead of ripping Robertson for quoting these passages, the more worthwhile discussion concerns Robertson’s interpretation and application of these passages in the modern day. But instead, numerous media outlets have irresponsibly misattributed these quotations with the presumed aim of demonizing Robertson without such a discussion. The way many have latched onto Pope Francis’ rhetorically attractive but still firmly traditional quotations without acknowledging that he continues to uphold traditional church teaching (the ‘only’ in the above quote [to the right] is quite significant) is similarly problematic.”

This is well put, and is the same problem we’ve seen repeatedly when post-9/11 critics quote the Qur’an and are then accused of misrepresenting the Qur’an. It happens all the time to Robert Spencer when he quotes militant passages preaching hate and warfare against non-Muslims, and when he furthermore points out that there is currently no mainstream sect of Islam or school of Islamic jurisprudence that has officially re-interpreted or spiritualized these passages. (All four schools of Islamic jurisprudence still teach that the Muslim community should wage war against unbelievers and subjugate them under its rule.) Of course, there are millions of Muslims who ignore this and choose to co-exist peacefully with others; but that doesn’t change what the Qur’an actually teaches and what mainstream Islam continues to uphold. As an analogy, the Catholic Church continues to affirm the intrinsic immorality of contraceptives, even if many Catholics ignore the teaching.

The point is that Phil Robertson is not “misrepresenting Christianity”. He is citing Paul verbatim. Now, one might argue that he is taking Paul’s statements out of context, but frankly I don’t even think that’s the case, because Paul’s indictments largely transcend his sitz im leben. Scholars tell us he was swiping temple prostitution (pederasty) as part of his attack in Rom 1:24-32 and I Cor 6:9-10, and while that’s undoubtedly true, it’s not the whole story. The apostle hated male homosexuality across the board. The flip-side, however, is worth noting: like the rest of the bible, Paul is silent on the subject of female homosexuality if Rom 1:26 points to alternative heterosexual behavior instead of lesbianism. This isn’t surprising: as the product of an honor-shame macho culture, he was (certainly) homophobic about male homo-eroticism, and (possibly) indifferent to female homo-eroticism.

I admire Paul greatly as an historical figure and early Christian thinker, but I consider his views on (male) homosexuality to be obsolete — as obsolete as his instruction for women in the church. I take for granted there is nothing remotely immoral or wrong about homosexual behavior between two consenting adults. Jason Staples probably thinks differently. But where we agree is on how issues like this should be assessed. If someone is unambiguously upholding Paul’s position, that should be acknowledged instead of implying that he’s fabricating his own bigotry; if someone more admirable (like Pope Francis, whom I do have much respect for) is more delicately upholding Paul’s position, that too should be called out for what it is. When Islamic radicals cite the necessity of the jihad, they are doing justice to their Qur’an, and it’s not “Islamophobic” to point this out. It is not hateful to point out hateful passages or homophobic ones. If we’re going to confront problems like holy wars and homophobia, we need to do so honestly, and the honesty begins by acknowledging that problems like these are often embedded in the scripture of one’s religion. They won’t go away by pretending that they’re overblown, misunderstood, or even invented by fringe fanatics or bigots.

Outer-Space Film Marathon

This year’s release of Europa Report and Gravity got me on a marathon of outer-space films. So here’s my pick-list. If you’re surprised there are only eight, it’s because I have a focus. The web is flooded with “best space movies”, but most are superficial, including highly futuristic blockbusters (like Star Wars), and even superior indie flicks (like Solaris) in which the outer-space settings are incidental to the plot. My picks involve crews of astronauts on an outbound missions (typically investigative or rescue) and catastrophic hazards inside the ship or EVA. These are the films that make you really feel like you’re in outer space and sharing the zero-g environments of the characters.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968. 5 stars. Any credible outer-space list has to lead with Kubrick’s masterpiece. What can be said that hasn’t? It doesn’t matter that its vision of the year 2001 is obsolete; it’s an ecstatically experiential film. You take in the vastness of space through some of the most euphoric imagery ever put on celluloid. Re-watching it with the others on this list was interesting, because it allowed me to get more out of it than the “Kubrick experience”. Which means I really got less out of it: for the first time (my fifth viewing in life) I could sideline all the transcendent mysteries and just enjoy the ride — the patiently plotted mission to the ice moon Europa.

Setting: Mission to Europa; Year 2001.
Ship: Discovery One.
Body Count: 4/5. Dr. Bowman is transformed into the Star Child.

2. Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979. 5 stars. This remains the scariest sci-fic film ever made, and the early scenes with Nostromo’s crew exploring the hostile planet still get my gut in knots. If Kubrick’s classic showed space travel to be an awe-inspiring wonder, Scott’s masterpiece showed the underside with claustrophobia, isolation, and invincible savagery. I never cease to be amazed at those who insist that James Cameron’s sequel is superior. Aliens is just Alien on steroids, and not even a fifth as scary; it’s a blockbuster involving military personnel whose job to die defending others. In Scott’s classic we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded in space, hunted and devoured one by one.

Setting: Mission to LV-426; Year 2122.
Ship: Nostromo.
Body Count: 6/7. Ripley the sole survivor.

3. Sunshine, Danny Boyle, 2007. 5 stars. I can’t say enough about this film. It postulates a near future in which the sun is dying, and a crew embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire. Captain Kaneda’s death is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any film, and from that early point the mission becomes one calamity after the next. Crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and they even contemplate murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. It soon becomes clear that it’s a suicide mission. On top of all this, there is the terrifying subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. The visuals are absolutely stunning.

Setting: Mission to the dying Sun; Year 2057.
Ship: Icarus II.
Body Count: 8/8. All astronauts die.

4. Europa Report, Sebastián Cordero, 2013. 4 ½ stars. Don’t be put off by rumors of the quasi-documentary approach. This film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a film like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon, and to hell with the radiation levels.

Setting: Mission to Europa; Year 2013 (?).
Ship: Europa One.
Body Count: 6/6. All astronauts die.

5. Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón, 2013. 4 ½ stars. I’m not a fan of 3D, but I admit this film totally demands the format. It effected me the way I wanted Apollo 13 to back in the ’90s, and even if it doesn’t carry the power of being a true story, it’s the better for eventually isolating a single lone survivor. It underscores the deathly beautiful silence of outer space, punctuated with assaults of flying shrapnel and horrifying mechanical failures at the right moments. It’s a visually perfect film. Some say it’s a future setting, others say it’s in the past, given the reliance on space shuttles. It’s not science-fiction in any case; like Apollo 13 it’s a desperate attempt to return from the Earth’s orbit to the surface when everything goes wrong.

Setting: Mission STS-157; Year 2013 (?).
Ship: Explorer.
Body Count: 4/5. Dr. Stone the sole survivor.

6. Event Horizon, Paul Anderson, 1997. 4 ½ stars. This was hammered by the critics but is now a cult classic, and as far as I’m concerned the best space-horror film after Alien. It’s essentially The Shining in deep space, with a space vessel standing in for the Overlook Hotel. The vessel is powered by a gravity drive that makes light-years of travel possible in an instant, but unfortunately also taps into power beyond space and time, bringing nightmares to life and causing people to revel in blood and carnage. There are slaughter scenes here to rival those of Hellraiser, but on a far creepier level. You never lose the deep-space feeling in these haunted walkways, and there’s a particular EVA rescue scene that’s nasty.

Setting: Mission to Neptune; Year 2047.
Ship: Lewis and Clark.
Body Count: 5/8. Three astronauts survive.

7. Mission to Mars, Brian DePalma, 2000. 4 stars. This one has a poor reputation, and I’m not sure why. It’s very good for a DePalma film, and while he was clearly inspired by James Cameron’s The Abyss, he inverts a lot of Cameron’s cheesy tendencies. He even has the balls to answer where life on earth came from: we learn that our human precursors began on Mars, and then seeded their DNA on Earth when the planet went red and became uninhabitable. The best part is the rescue operation which sees the crew needing to rescue themselves and damn near failing — the EVA scenes and the loss of the Tim Robbins character is a solid pay-off to the earlier scene in the ship where he and his wife are dancing in zero-g.

Setting: Mission to Mars; Year 2020.
Ships: Mars I and Mars II.
Body Count: 4/8. Three of four die in the first mission. One of four dies in the rescue mission.

8. Apollo 13, Ron Howard, 1995. 4 stars. The true story that happened when I was less than two years old. Revisiting it after the incredible visuals of Gravity, I expected to be let down, but it holds up mostly well. Except for the frequent scenes of Jim Lovell’s family reacting to news on TV, which are melodramatic and interrupt what matters on the Apollo and at Houston Control. It’s a miracle these three guys made it back to Earth, especially how they were coached to preserve their power and oxygen (my favorite being the make-shift filter to scrub the CO2 that was poisoning them). It’s the only film on this list in which “everyone lives”, and the only reason it doesn’t feel like a cheat is because that’s what actually happened!

Setting: Mission to the Moon; Year 1970.
Ship: Apollo 13.
Body Count: 0/3. All three astronauts live.

Marathon Watching Order

Those are my rankings, but this is my recommended watching order for a marathon, by chronology. It’s nice how similar themes end up back to back (two Earth-orbit missions, followed by two Europa missions, etc.), with a general escalation of menace.

1. Apollo 13.
2. Gravity.
3. Space Odyssey.
4. Europa Report.
5. Mission to Mars.
6. Event Horizon.
7. Sunshine.
8. Alien.

The Best Films of 2013

Let’s be clear: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is not to be found here — Peter Jackson has officially gone off the rails. My top choice is a no-brainer, Blue is the Warmest Color, for which I’m glad both lead actresses (not just the director) were acknowledged at Cannes.

1. Blue is the Warmest Color. 5 stars. It’s a bit sad that this has gained notoriety for the graphic lesbian scenes, which for the record are tasteful and well used. The pornographic tone fits the early part of the story where the young Adele is discovering herself, and seeing herself, in wildly adolescent terms. The film isn’t about sex, but the searing power of love which becomes destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. After the break up Emma is able to forgive, and Adele obtain at least some measure of closure. The film is three hours long but I wanted it to go longer.

2. Europa Report. 4 ½ stars. This was obviously a good year for outer-space dramas, and don’t be put off by rumors of Europa’s quasi-documentary approach. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a film like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon, and to hell with the radiation levels.

3. Before Midnight. 4 ½ stars. I love these conversational exercises between Jesse and Celine. They first met in Before Sunrise (1995) and then found each other again in Before Sunset (2004). Now they’ve been in a relationship for nine years. But their reflections on how they met and how their lives have changed, are just as compelling, and so organically delivered by Hawke and Delpy it’s dazzling. Here they arrive at a hotel and have a nasty argument, fearing their direction in life, entertaining break-up, and as twice before the conclusion is the right amount of open-ended.

4. The Day of the Doctor. 4 ½ stars. This counts as a film because it had a theatrical run. Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special is a grand multi-Doctor special, and though it relies on a reset button there’s enough moral cost to compensate. The Doctor has been drowning in guilt over his war crimes for seven seasons now, and that’s a long time for us to be without Gallifrey. When he finally undoes his decision, the solution is shrewd, and it’s not as if everything is magically restored as it should be. We still don’t know where Gallifrey is, and the three Doctors forget their group-effort reset as soon as they resume their timelines. The interactions between Tennant, Smith, and the surprise incarnation of John Hurt are splendid. See my full review.

5. The Impossible. 4 ½ stars. If you really want to see what a tsunami does to people, watch this scene from the film. Tsunamis are chaotic, filthy brown, relentless forces of mass destruction, and this is the first movie to portray one with such upsetting accuracy. This is based on a true account of an English family vacationing in Thailand in 2004, when the Indian Ocean earthquake struck. The tsunami separates the family, and the mother (played by Naomi Watts) barely survives. It’s a harrowing film to watch, but the ending is uplifting and well earned.

Image result for gravity film6. Gravity. 4 ½ stars. I’m not a fan of 3D, but Gravity is a film that demands the format. It effected me the way I wanted Apollo 13 to back in the ’90s. If it doesn’t carry the power of being a true story, it’s the better for eventually isolating a single lone survivor. It underscores the deathly beautiful silence of outer space, punctuated with assaults of flying shrapnel and horrifying mechanical failures at the right moments. It’s a visually perfect film.

7. Passion. 4 stars. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Brian DePalma since, well, forever, so I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s about an advertising exec dominating her subordinate through sexual humiliation, which generates a convoluted trail of retaliation in which nothing is as it seems — or perhaps too obvious after all. The main character is handled well, and sympathetic enough that I didn’t know what to believe (or what I wanted to believe). The twisted side plots add to the weirdness, especially her secretary’s attempt to sexually blackmail her, which I didn’t see coming.

8. We Are What We Are. 4 stars. This is better than the Mexican version for many reasons. First, it’s not one of those horror remakes done just for the sake of gutting an original and putting it in English (like Let Me In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Ring, etc). It really does remake the story and do interesting things with it, which in my view are improvements. The Mexican version was driven by socio-political themes of alienation resulting from poverty, where this one is devoid of that, and given a fundamentalist backdrop which is less satirical and far more creepy. The setting of the Catskill Mountains in New York is also more ominous than Mexico City, and is somehow is what you’d imagine for a family of Christian cannibals.

9. The East. 4 stars. This is from the same director of The Sound of My Voice (2011), which was about a pair of documentary filmmakers who joined a cult in order to expose its charismatic leader. Similar group dynamics are on display in The East, as an investigator for a corporate form joins an eco-terrorist group to spy on its members. Ellen Page plays Izzy, an uncompromising anarchist who is the daughter of a petrochemical CEO; she forces him to bathe in the waterway he’s been using as a toxic dumping site. It’s obviously the perfect role for Page, who thrives on such radical causes in real life. The eco-terrorists get in some nasty payback, and it’s huge fun. But it’s Batmanglij’s acute understanding of fringe-group dynamics that make this film so good.

10. The Wolf of Wall Street. 3 ½ stars. This is no Scorsese masterpiece, but it is a guilty pleasure of his indulgences gone wild. It examines the life of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (played by Leo DiCaprio) and his worship of money, chauvinistic womanizing, and drug addiction. As always in a Scorsese film, the dialogue alone is a roller-coaster. (By now everyone and their mother knows that it broke the record for having the most F-bombs in any movie.) The characters are entirely unsympathetic, which is much the point, but unlike Goodfellas which did the same thing, this feels more like a wasted exercise.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)

Secret Mark Still Fools People

Over on the Nashua library blog I ran a trilogy on the historical Jesus. It’s a reader’s advisory blog (no, not in the parental warning sense) where contributors like myself recommend books for the public, and the genres I cover range from horror to fantasy to early Christianity. This month I piggy-backed off a recent cascade of scandalous-sounding books on Jesus, which deal with his marital status, his politics, and even the Secret Mark hoax once used to suggest he was gay. And now I’m getting queries from people who want to know more about this stuff, especially the last: the “Secret Gospel of Mark” and scholar Morton Smith who “discovered” it.

The Secret Gospel of Mark (or Secret Mark, as it’s commonly called) is quoted in a letter supposedly written by the famous second-century theologian, Clement of Alexandria. This letter was “discovered” in 1958 by a biblical scholar named Morton Smith at Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery in Palestine. The part of the “secret gospel” which Clement quotes tells a story similar to the raising of Lazarus in John 11. But instead of raising Lazarus, Jesus revives a young man who “looked at Jesus, loved him, and began to beg him to be with him”. Later in the evening, the young man comes to Jesus “wearing a linen cloth over his naked body; and he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God”.

I am sure that Morton Smith forged his “discovery” of Clement’s letter — as sure as I am of my own age. Even aside from the glaring content (which we’ll get to right away), there’s an immediate red flag which forgery experts call a “seal of authenticity”. The author conveniently goes out of his way to authenticate his own letter, by naming himself Clement, who in turn vouches for the authenticity of the secret gospel which he, again conveniently, quotes at remarkable length. This is all too good to be true, as discoveries go. The other red flag is that no one has ever seen this “discovery”, aside from Smith himself (who took photos of it); it mysteriously vanished from the Mar Saba library where he “found” it. Anyone with sense should be suspicious from the start, and indeed many scholars were.

Once you look at the actual content of Clement’s letter and Secret Mark, it becomes crystal clear that Smith wrote it. What remains unclear is his motive. Did he write it to support his theories, or to test his colleagues? Are we dealing with a forgery like the Hitler Diaries and William Ireland’s Shakespeare play? Or a hoax like the Ern Malley Poems and Alan Sokol’s postmodern essay? Was this fraud or an elaborate prank?

SMITH’S FORGERY

Here are the elements indicating the former — that Smith forged Clement’s letter to reinforce personal convictions and lend force to his academic claims.

(1) Gay Smith, Gay Jesus. Smith was passionate about the church’s view of homosexuality, and he wrote on the subject in a time (1949) when it was rarely discussed. And of course, it turned out that he was gay. His “discovery” in 1958 allowed him to conveniently claim that Jesus was gay. In The Secret Gospel (1973) he suggested that Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination, and ascend into heaven; in the kingdom of God the disciples were liberated from the Jewish law; and their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex. So Jesus not only had sex with the disciples — he invested homosexuality with religious significance.

(2) Sex and God’s kingdom. Right before his “discovery”, Smith published an academic paper connecting both Clement of Alexandria and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1). This is exactly what Secret Mark is about.

(3) Holy lies. Smith was intrigued by the 19th-century debate over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. His “discovery” answers that very question. In the supposed letter, Clement says that one should tell bald-faced lies — indeed, should lie under oath — to those who are easily misled by the truth. This contradicts Clement’s well-known writings, where he insists that one must not swear falsely. The salient point is not so much the contradiction (people do sometimes contradict themselves, depending on situation), but rather the issue speaking directly to Smith’s interests.

To be blunt, based on this evidence alone, anyone unable to see Morton Smith’s fingerprints in Clement’s letter is incompetent. Taken alone, these would seem to indicate that the letter is indeed a forgery in the traditional sense — a fraudulent attempt by Smith to legitimate his beliefs, theories, and sexual orientation.

SMITH’S HOAX

On the other hand, Smith slow-played his hand. He was too smart to become a victim of his crime. After publishing The Secret Gospel in 1973, he failed to capitalize on his scandalous theory. His book Jesus the Magician (1978) certainly gave him every opportunity — its thesis being that Jesus was more like a pagan magician than a Jewish prophet — and yet he cited Secret Mark in only one place, almost as an afterthought. (When explaining that the “mystery of the kingdom of God” was a magical rite by which young men became entranced, possessed, and then granted the keys to paradise; pp 134-135).

Indeed, instead of running wild with his “discovery”, Smith seemed more interested in his colleagues’ reactions to it — what they might do with the secret gospel, or what bum-steered theories they might come up with. And to see if they could pass his test by spotting the jokes he planted.

Here are those gags, confirming that Smith was less engaged in fraud and more enjoying an elaborate prank.

(1) Morton Salt. Jesus’ famous saying about “salt losing its savor” (Mk 9:50/Mt 5:13/Lk 14:34) is reworded in Clement’s letter to imply free-flowing salt. Iodized salt is not only a 20th-century invention; the inventor was a man named Joy Morton, who founded the Morton Salt Company. This joke was spotted by Stephen Carlson in 2005.

(2) Oscar Wilde. The gospel figure of Salome the disciple (Mk 15:40) is used to invoke a 19th-century play. Salome is among the women in Secret Mark who are rejected by Jesus, implying that Jesus had no interest in women. And in Clement’s letter, there is a puzzling allusion to “seven veils”. It comes from the modern play, Salome, where the lead character does a “dance of the seven veils”. Oscar Wilde was the playwright, and he was a gay martyr. This gag was spotted by Peter Jeffery in 2006.

(3) James Hunter. Smith’s “discovery” in 1958 copied the drama of a novel published in 1940. The novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba, is about a forgery at the exact same library where Smith “found” Clement’s letter. Just like the fake document in Hunter’s novel, Secret Mark reinterprets a resurrection account from the gospels in naturalistic terms. Philip Jenkins made this connection in 2001. (This one is so glaring it’s embarrassing; had it been spotted sooner, a lot less people would have been fooled.)

(4) Gay men, public parks. The most creative joke involves associating the young man who spent the night with Jesus (in Secret Mark) with the young man from Gethsemane (Mk 14:51-52) where Jesus was arrested. In other words, this naked youth who “spent the night with Jesus” also followed Jesus around in a garden. This evokes America in the ’50s — the time of Smith’s “discovery”, and a particularly oppressive time for gay men, when police were arresting them in public parks. This joke was explained by Carlson in 2005.

Smith had the sense of humor required to craft these kind of jokes. Once pointed out, the allusions are obvious (and hilarious). At this point, only fools and the willfully obtuse insist that Clement’s letter/Secret Mark is a genuine document.

So what’s the relationship between the two? Peter Jeffery notes that forgery and hoaxing motives undermine each other, and that a man as conflicted and in as much pain as Smith probably wasn’t too clear on what he was trying to do (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 242). Stephen Carlson, who insists on a hoax more than a forgery, nonetheless recognizes that “motives are rarely simple or pure”, and that motives which can be stronger at one point can take a back seat at others (Gospel Hoax, p 80). We’ll never get a handle on Smith’s precise intentions, because we can’t dissect his psyche. But it’s clear that his passion, anger, intellectual arrogance, cleverness, and humor all came together in one of the most brilliant academic fakes of all time. It took a long time to fully expose it.

I said that only fools and the willfully obtuse maintain Smith’s innocence. Some of these die-hards contributed to the collection of essays released this year, Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? They’re at a point of enough desperation that they shut out the forest for the trees and make mountains of anthills. For instance, in response to Francis Watson’s suggestion that the character of Lord Moreton (from James Hunter’s novel) could be yet another one of “Morton” Smith’s implied jokes, Scott Brown and Allan Pantuck point out that it’s not Lord Moreton who discovers the truth about the fake manuscript in the novel; he simply learns about it (pp 104-105). Or, responding to Stephen Carlson’s point about the connection between “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), Brown and Pantuck say that T. Hagigah 2:1 isn’t only concerned with regulations about forbidden sex, but with all scriptures that the Tannaim thought should be discussed in secret (p 107). And so on.

These objections put us in the theater of the absurd. The character of Lord Moreton is obviously irrelevant (though I’ve no doubt Smith saw it as icing on the cake). The general events of Hunter’s novel speak for themselves. There’s no way their replication in Smith’s real-life “discovery” are coincidences. The full implications of T. Hagigah 2:1 are also a red herring. The connection of the passage with Mk 4:11 — in a paper Smith published literally only a year before his “discovery” — is all you need to see the obvious.

Smith’s defenders are even trying to elevate the burden of proof. Charles Hedrick, for example, says that “the standard of proof for convicting a distinguished colleague of forgery should be higher than what has been offered by the modern forgery theorists” (p 37). First of all, the issue isn’t whether there is enough forensic evidence required to “convict” Smith on any implied criminal level. I’m the first to insist that no matter how obvious someone’s guilt is, he or she should be acquitted in the absence of the required legal evidence. (Casey Anthony being a recent example: it’s obvious she killed her daughter, but the jury was correct to acquit her.) The point is that when confronted with an avalanche of unlikelihoods, coincidences, and modern gags, anyone should be able to confess what is plain as day.

But it gets even worse. Scott Brown’s book, Mark’s Other Gospel, was published only months before Stephen Carlson’s debunking, and he continues to defend his thesis in the wake of the obvious. But his thesis is empty, because it argues that Secret Mark is really about nothing at all. The only way Brown can tame the hoax is by erasing it at every turn. Thus he claims that Clement’s letter doesn’t even speak of a secret gospel — only a mystic one. Nor was this gospel “carefully guarded”, as properly translated — only “securely or safely kept”. In fact, all of the truths conveyed in this “longer” (not secret) version of Mark’s gospel are still available to readers of Mark’s standard version. So why Clement should be telling people to lie (and under oath) about the existence of this gospel, why other Christian sects are getting so sexually charged over it, why the fuss over so much danger, makes no sense.

In his own essay, Peter Jeffery criticizes Brown on the same point:

“Clement’s harsh language of unspeakable teachings, carnal sins, falsifications, foul demons, deceitful arts, magical enslavement, utterly shameless lies, and so on, softens [in Brown’s thesis] into a suburban sit-com in which somebody advises someone else to fudge the truth a bit, so that those pesky neighbors will lack authorization to read a book that is being safely kept nowhere in particular, and which basically says nothing anyway.” (pp 216-217)

Years ago I reviewed Brown’s book and tried to play as fair ball as I could, but in hindsight I was too kind. His work on Secret Mark stands as the worst to date, arguing for a complete non-event.

I know it’s hard for scholars to eat crow. They stake their reputations on what they publish. But there’s more going on here than scholarly pride. Smith’s theories about his “discovery” called forth ridicule from conservative scholars, and it’s a fair bet that many were homophobes. Liberal scholars, naturally, were the ones inclined to give Clement’s letter a fair shake — for the very good reason that we should rejoice in discoveries of alternative gospels. They make things more interesting, and paint early Christianity as it likely was: diverse and (to us) unorthodox, whether sexually or not. But that lure is precisely what forgers rely on to fool us. The real tragedy, as Carlson pointed out, is that Smith’s hoax did the most damage to his friends and sympathizers — broad-minded scholars, in other words, like Scott Brown.

My (35th) Doctor Who Anniversary

The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who is really the 35th anniversary for people like me. In 1978 Tom Baker’s first four seasons (12-15) were simultaneously released to PBS stations, and that was the start of American fandom. Some of Jon Pertwee’s seasons had been shown in the early ’70s, but they didn’t generate any interest. The Star Wars craze of ’77 made the U.S. suddenly receptive to this sort of thing, and for me it was life-changing. Those Tom Baker stories were recycled relentlessly on TV, and they ran daily between Mondays and Fridays. At five episodes a week, the networks burned through four seasons in much less than a year’s time, which was just as well. These were the days before VHS, and I rejoiced in the frequent PBS replays.

A Golden Age

What you have to understand is that those four seasons were the absolute best of Doctor Who, and they still are. I’m not just saying that because they were my first. This was the golden age under Philip Hinchcliffe, who turned Doctor Who into a violent and gruesome horror-fest. Frankly I couldn’t believe I was watching stuff this intense on TV. Much later I learned that in the UK, the BBC had received numerous complaints about the Hinchcliffe stories, especially from Mary Whitehouse (the Chair of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association) who claimed that they could traumatize children.

I discovered the show when my PBS station was towards the end of season 14, at Robots of Death. Which means that my second story was the epic Talons of Weng-Chiang, recognized by many (and certainly me) as the best Doctor Who story of all time. And my third was The Horror of Fang Rock, the season-15 premiere which felt like it belonged in season 14. (Hinchcliffe was producer during seasons 12-14, and Graham Williams would run things a bit lighter throughout seasons 15-17. But some of the season-15 stories were so menacing and horrific they felt like leftovers from the Hinchcliffe era. Fang Rock was one of them.)

Being initiated by these stories spoiled me to say the least. I came to think of them as a murder-mystery trilogy. Robots of Death combines a “whodunnit” plot with a group of programmed killers, to produce a claustrophobic story set inside a desert mining vehicle; people are stalked and strangled one by one, and the tension never lets up. The Horror of Fang Rock is oddly similar, this time set inside a lighthouse in a stormy sea, and the murderer is a shape-shifting alien who can assume the appearance of its slain victims. In between these tight environments, The Talons of Weng-Chiang presents Victorian London on a grand scale, and a hideous plot involving girls gone missing. Here the Doctor dresses up like Sherlock Holmes to assist the police, and lands in over his head against Chinese assassins, giant sewer rats, a homicidal doll, and a stage magician who is kidnapping the girls so that his master can “feed” on them.

Fondest Memories

Robots of Death was a perfect first story for me. It was straightforward, fast-paced, and intelligent. But it also conveniently introduced me to the TARDIS, through the eyes of Leela. Hers is the best companion reaction to “bigger on the inside” (Amy Pond’s in The Eleventh Hour is a close second), and the Doctor’s “explanation” for it has become legendary:

Doctor (holding up two boxes): “Which box is larger?”

Leela (pointing to the larger): “That one.”

Doctor (setting the larger box down and coming close to Leela with the smaller one): “Now which is larger?”

Leela (indignant, pointing over at the larger one): “That one!”

Doctor: “But it looks smaller.”

Leela: “That’s because it’s further away!”

Doctor: “Exactly. Now if you could keep that one exactly that distance away and have it here, it would fit inside the small one.”

Leela (nonplussed): “That’s silly.”

Doctor: “That’s trans-dimensional engineering.”

And that’s ridiculous, of course, because trans-dimensional engineering has nothing to do with how the eye is fooled. His explanation is indeed silly, and even my ten-year old self could see through it. But I quickly fell in love with the Doctor’s techno-babble. It fit the eccentric tone of the show — and in this case the writers may have intended something else. It’s quite possible that the Doctor is deliberately bullshitting Leela because he doesn’t consider her worthy of (or intelligent enough to handle) a genuine explanation for trans-dimensional engineering. Especially considering that she’s a primitive savage. That’s how I’ve come to understand the scene. It would be entirely in the Fourth Doctor’s character to spout nonsense just to shut her up.

As for The Talons of Weng-Chiang, every frame contains fond memories, but let’s focus on the villain, since he’s often tragically overlooked. Magnus Greel is for my money the vilest Doctor Who villain ever. Davros may be the most iconic and morally deranged (a galactic Nazi bent on subjugating the universe to a “supreme race”); Sutekh is certainly the most terrifying and invincible (a nihilist devoted not to subjugation but the total obliteration of all life everywhere); and the Master is the the most dangerously unpredictable (a personal rival capable of anything, even switching sides, to shaft the Doctor). But you can’t get more loathsome than Magnus Greel. He’s driven by the sheer need to survive. Hideously deformed from experiments gone awry, he inhabits sewers and subterranean lairs like a malingering ghoul. Like the other villains, he’s a megalomaniac, but he’s delusional (believing himself to be a Chinese god), and acquires artifacts like the Time Cabinet for the same primal reason he slaughters people like cattle: to leech power for his disintegrating body cells. There seems to be no particular reason for his choice of young girls, save that it feeds his particular sadism. He’s the quintessential Hinchcliffe villain who freaks me out more than any other.

My stand-out memories of The Horror of Fang Rock are priceless Leela moments. Best of all is when she whips out her knife and yells at Palmerdale who won’t stop arguing: “You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart!” Everyone is aghast at her barbaric display, but for once the Doctor doesn’t chastise her for violent impulses, because he needs the bickering to stop. Later, when someone else is found murdered, and poor Adelaide screams her bloody head off, Leela slaps her face in disgust. Finally, in the end, when she and the Doctor are the only ones left standing, she gloats over the dying body of the alien, and scolds the Doctor for not “celebrating the death of an enemy”. Of all Leela’s stories, this one drew most creatively on her tribal savage background.

Speaking of Fang Rock’s ending, it makes the story unique, though I didn’t know it at the time. For the first and last time in the show’s history, every single character in the supporting cast is killed off. These murders, moreover, are not just done for the “sake” of a high body count. As in Robots of Death, each kill is a slam in the gut that escalates the plot. I wish Steven Moffat would take inspiration from this classic, discard the “everyone lives” trope, and give Peter Capaldi some darker material to work with next season.

Completing the Loop

When PBS finished airing season 15, it looped around back to 12, and it wasn’t long before I devoured the entire Hinchcliffe era. I was initially confused thinking that Sarah came after Leela, and villains like Davros followed Magnus Greel. On some level I still think of Leela as the “first companion” (Sarah was obviously the best), on the power of first impressions. Her first story, The Face of Evil, was the last story I saw from the season 12-15 package. It was every bit as good as Robots of Death, and had it been my first story, it would have been interesting since I lived on a religious community. The story tackles religion head on, and is premised on the Doctor having unwittingly screwed over a planet by setting up a psychopathic computer-god in his own image. One of the cliffhangers gave me nightmares (see here, 3:15-4:00), and remains my favorite cliffhanger to this day.

Happy Anniversary

Those are my anniversary reflections. I entered the world of Doctor Who during its golden age, and on three especially dark stories that blended horror and mystery in a unique stew. The new series has tapped this old power on occasion, with entries like The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. I’ve generally been a fan of the new series, but neither Davies nor Moffat have superseded Hinchcliffe. They’ve come close when at the top of their game. But too often they have feared to trust that children can handle the “traumatic” storytelling that Mary Whitehouse decried, and that my best friend and I lived for when we were kids. This past season (the seventh) has been the worst in dumbing down to Disney levels. I’m pleased to say that the 50th anniversary special renewed my hope for season eight, and for a new Doctor.